Kristine Froseth Can’t Escape A Muddled Single Setting Survival Thriller [SXSW]

Mar 10, 2024

Confusion and how information is communicated, relayed, and delayed in a thriller can be a fantastic artistic weapon in the filmmaker’s toolkit. With his mathematic precision, filmmakers like Christopher Nolan can understand the Swiss watch nature of perfectly timed breadcrumbs of info that can preserve the mystery and keep an audience enraptured and on the edge of their seats. But the ace-in-the-sleeve of perplexing bewilderment is also a double-edged sword that must be wielded carefully. Withholding information for too long or not knowing the sweet spot structure of when to transmit info can and will absolutely backfire on a movie. And that’s generally what happens with “Desert Road,” a single-setting loop of a thriller that keeps the viewer in the dark for so long; by the time all is revealed, the audience is bored and resentful of all the ways they’ve been manipulated and toyed with. Unfortunately, math equations leave no room for error, and the calculations here never add up.
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Kristine Froseth stars as Claire Devoir, an aspiring photographer on a road trip. Stopping at a gas station when she gets lost, she becomes suspicious of a young, nervous, and overly-friendly gas attendant, lying to him about her boyfriend being in the back of the car asleep, only for the young man to accidentally uncover her ruse, awkwardly.
Eventually, via a few phone calls with her mom, we learn that Claire is driving on her way back home to Iowa and is leaving L.A.  She’s packing it in and calling it quits on her photography career because it hasn’t panned out; the bills are mounting, and it’s time to move on from just hopes and dreams.
And just as Claire is talking to her mother, distracted while on the phone by a curious text, she gets into a car accident on this long, isolated stretch of desert road. Dazed and confused with a bump on the head, she sways about banged up and disoriented from the crash. Returning to the gas station, she seeks help, asking the young attendant to call her a tow truck.
But Claire, walking back and forth from her car to the gas station and back again, starts to experience something akin to Déjà vu. Eventually, in her hazy, puzzled quest for help, she discovers that no matter which direction she goes, she always ends up at her crashed car again.
For a good forty minutes or so, she repeats this exercise, going back to the gas station, seeking help, and trying to call a tow truck, but she begins to become caught in some inexplicable cul de sac of repeated experiences. She calls her mother and explains why she’s lost hope in her career, and her mom urges her to don’t give up, words that eventually are her guiding light.
Eventually, her phone dies, her credit card—the one she’s trying to hold a tow truck on is declined—and things keep getting worse and worse and repetitive. It’s a minimalist film, one girl stranded in an austere setting with only one or two constants around her, and it’s just not clever or captivating enough to sustain itself as a feature-length film.
And “Desert Road” becomes exhausting and frustrating. Is Claire confused? Did the bump on the head give her some psychological damage? Did the gas station attendant drug her with the Slurpee he urged her to buy? Is the tow truck operator also a sheriff, and why is he seemingly after her? Or is she dead and a ghost? Why is the gas station attendant suddenly stricken by her appearance? To keep the viewer guessing, something the film overcooks and miscalculates, “Desert Road” infuriatingly throws red herring after red herring at the audience to keep them off balance, only confusing and irritating all the more, withholding and concealing the truth of it all before it’s too late.
Without spoilers, Frances Fisher and Beau Bridges appear in small parts meant to give the film some gravity. Still, while their appearances are welcome and add a twinkle of poignancy, having missed the crucial mark earlier in its assembly, they cannot salvage the film. Imagine something considered and carefully constructed as Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.” Then, Imagine several missteps early on that lead to being more confounded than enthralled with the experience, the cascading domino effect damage that would likely occur, and a picture emerges of where this film goes awry.
Eventually, around the draining and grueling 60-minute mark—spoiler alert— “Desert Road” finally reveals itself. It’s a hellish time-loop film. Something unfathomable— and not very well explained, even loosely— about this location in the desert has trapped Claire in a cycle, and it may have spanned nearly 40 years. Through a series of baffling maps she drafts—that make no internal logic to anyone other than the filmmaker—the audience has to take at face value that Claire understands how and where to precisely jump back to the time period right before she experiences her car accident. By then, all is lost, at least for the viewer, as the film has failed to convince—confusion having critically overpowered the tenants of suspension of disbelief.
The feature-length debut by Shannon Triplett, “Desert Road,” is an admirably ambitious movie, but it just never lands and is too sparse and spare to work. Repetition is crucial in films like these; the recurring parts eventually clue the audience into what’s happening. But here, the already-tangled echoing cycle of it all grates. We’ve seen “Groundhog Day” type films delight in thrillers like “Edge Of Tomorrow” and “Looper.” However, “Desert Road” feels like its early navigation system is fundamentally flawed—a few degrees off course turns the entire affair fatally off its axis. Eventually, this time loop thriller is indeed hellish, just not how the filmmaker intended, unfortunately. [C-].

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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